Forget Skiing, Visit the French Alps to Drink Wine
When the snow melts away, Savoie is still an incredible destination to eat and drink.
Before I visited the Alpine region of Savoie in eastern France, I had never considered what winemakers and skiers might have in common. You don't get vineyards edging the pistes, after all. But the geological disruption that creates 12,000-foot mountains (which are perfect for skiing) tends to leave vine-friendly soils lower down (which are perfect for grape-growing). And in summer, the skiers melt away and leave the hotels, restaurants, and amazing views to the hikers, cyclists, and wine lovers, like me.
My husband and I drove in last August from Burgundy, where we are based, through a craggy gray landscape that looked very Swiss-not surprising given that Lac du Bourget, France's largest natural lake, is only 47 miles south of Geneva. The bright green water meant warm swimming, as the harmless algae responsible for the color only bloom at around 75°F. At day's end, we sipped sparkling, citrusy Crémant de Savoie on the Hôtel L'Incomparable terrace, served (as we were everywhere) by the carefully masked staff, and watched the lake's extraordinary hue dim as the light faded.
Savoie grape varieties like Jacquère, Altesse, and Mondeuse aren't exactly household names. And because skiers and hikers are thirsty people, most Savoie wine never makes it beyond the mountains. I was in unexplored terrain.
We circled the lake to Jongieux to meet Eric Carrel, who still bottles under his father's name, François. Of Savoie's four appellations, Vin de Savoie is by far the largest, and Jongieux is one of several named crus within it. Carrel's red Jongieux is 100% Mondeuse, a lovely variety, light yet serious, with fine acidity; some of his vines are over a century old. His Jacquère was fresh and minerally, with a hint of melon, very different from the peachy, perfumed Jacquères we tried farther south.
The reason for that difference is an ancient catastrophe: the great landslide of 1248, when part of Mont Granier fell, leaving rich red and blue clay soils and a pile of limestone rubble. Those clays are why, according to Apremont winemaker Jérémy Dupraz, the Jacquère of Apremont is so special. Fellow winemakers Philippe Ravier, in Myans, and Michel Quenard, a few minutes away on the Coteau de Torméry, both talked about the importance of 1248, probably because they each make a Jacquère Les Abymes. Les abymes means "the chasms," and the vines of this cru grow on the limestone and marl remains of that long-ago disaster.
The collapse of the mountain also produced other miracles: Leaving Ravier, we passed an enormous golden Virgin Mary, shining in the sunlight atop the church of Our Lady of Myans. The great rockfall stopped short here, sparing the church. Nearly 800 years later, nobody has forgotten.
Michel Quenard, working now with his son Guillaume, has a cozy wooden tasting room and 54 acres of vines on steep, rocky slopes. Even better than his Les Abymes were three rich, stone-fruity whites made from Roussanne-known here as Bergeron-though Guillaume groused that the grape is twice as much work as Jacquère.
From Chamonix, we ascended by cable car 7,500 feet to meet Claire Thiolière, a local guide, for a hike serious enough to sharpen several appetites, past larch and pine trees, bright purple fireweed flowers, and the remains of the cable car that served the 1924 Winter Olympics. Thiolière knew the history, geology, and botany; better yet, she knew all the best refuges- simple mountaintop restaurants with charming outdoor terraces and bedrooms for serious climbers. In one, I tried diots au vin blanc, the area's tasty pork sausages cooked in white wine; in another, an array of cakes out-dazzled the view-the innkeeper, Claude Quenot, is a trained pastry chef. Even four miles from Italy and eight miles from Switzerland, this felt more French than the Eiffel Tower.
Beyond these refuges lay another spectacular sight: la Mer de Glace, or "the sea of ice," France's longest glacier, bordered by dark gray moraine and towering, snow-streaked peaks. It is losing about 130 feet per year due to global warming, and because the ancient glaciers that once lumbered through this scenery are responsible for the vine-friendly soil, I'm doubly grateful to have seen it.
Astonishingly, there is a little cog railway up there. After a steep train ride back into Chamonix, we walked along the Arve River to the QC Terme spa. Their next slated opening is in New York City, but while the new U.S. spa might feature as many saunas as the Chamonix one-which has enough to rival Finland, including one that doubles as a cinema-I'm not sure the Manhattan skyline can match Chamonix's finest asset: a large heated outdoor pool directly facing the intensely dramatic Alps.
Perhaps, by now, we should have been immune to the amazing views. From our room at Auberge du Bois Prin, a sumptuous version of a Savoyard wooden chalet, Europe's tallest mountain, Mont Blanc, appeared so close it practically balanced on our balcony. At the restaurant, owner Emmanuel Renaut-a chef himself at the three-Michelin-star Flocons de Sel, 30 minutes away in Megève-has installed the exceptionally talented (and exceptionally young, at 25) Xavier Aubel as chef. Sommelier Delphine Borner matched Aubel's terrific dishes with a succession of obscure and delicious local wines that made me pine for the vineyard visits I had missed, like Edmond Jacquin's, which is just three minutes' walk from Carrel's. Whether you love skiing, mountaineering, or wine tasting, there's always another slope to discover.
Where to Eat and Drink
Le Refuge Du Plan De L'aiguille
It's quite a hike, but this is the place to try truly local cuisine and astonishing cakes (innkeeper Claude Quenot is a trained pâtissier) in unpretentious surroundings at over 7,000 feet above sea level in Chamonix. Closed in winter. (refuge-plan-aiguille.com)
La Fine Bouche
This small restaurant in Chamonix makes a fine fondue with local ingredients-mush- rooms, meat, or just cheese and more cheese-and doubles as a shop. (80 place du Poilu)
Perch yourself out- side on the patio of this restaurant in Saint-Germain-la-Chambotte, and enjoy local cheeses, terrines, lake fish, and snails, accompanied by panoramic views over Lac du Bourget. (belvedere-la-chambotte.com)
Three generations of ice cream makers use exclusively local prod- ucts to make fabulous flavors. In addition to parlors in Aix-les-Bains and Chambéry, owners Delphine Villard and Luciano Sanguinetti also have a funky ice cream cart, the Sib'mobile. (lasiberienneglaces.com)
Where to Stay
This elegant new boutique hotel in Tresserve features rooms-and a bar, restaurant, pool, and terrace hot tub-that face the lake. (Rooms from $228, hotel-lincomparable.com)
Refuge Du Montenvers
This venerable refuge right beside the Mer de Glace glacier (and train station) is a scenic pit stop for local specialties and housemade lemonade; there are also wood-lined, comfortable if unpretentious bedrooms and a dormitory for hikers. (Rooms from $227, refugedumontenvers.com/fr)
Auberge Du Bois Prin
The new venture from chef Emmanuel Renaut of Flocons de Sel in Megève and his wife, Kristine, is a chalet-style hotel with stunning views and a fabulous restaurant and outdoor terrace. (Rooms from $263, boisprin.com)
Where To Taste
Domaine Carrel François Et Fils
Enjoy a glass of fresh, minerally Jacquère at this family-run estate in the small village of Jongieux. (domaine-carrel-francois-et-fils.fr)
Try the more perfumed Jacquère of Apremont at the Dupraz family estate, where winemaking runs six generations deep. (domainedupraz.com)
Philippe & Sylvain Ravier
The Raviers' peachy and aromatic Jacquère Les Abymes is best enjoyed from the terrace that looks out on the mountains. (vinsravier.fr)
André & Michel Quenard
Taste the Quenard family's stone-fruity whites made with Bergeron in a cute wooden tasting room. (am-quenard.fr)
Things To Do
QC Terme Spa
Jaw-dropping mountain views while submerged in a large heated pool? Yes, please.(qcterme.com/en/chamonix-mont-blanc)
Guided Tours With Claire Thioliére
From history and botany to geology and food, local guide Claire Thiolière knows her stuff and takes visitors on tours of the region. (email email@example.com)
Each of the wineries, hotels, and businesses listed above are following local COVID safety protocols at the time of writing.